Objectives: Residency is a critical step in the professional development of physicians. Given the high stakes of the process, it is not surprising, although nonetheless troubling, that professional misconduct may occur: multiple studies have, rightfully, condemned applicants for plagiarising personal statements or misrepresenting publications. To date, however, no studies have examined whether faculty members may engage in similar behaviours. Methods: Software was used to evaluate 3864 unique applications containing 13 617 letters of recommendation submitted through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) to the Yale University Department of Psychiatry Residency Program in recruitment cycles from 2013–2014 to 2016–2017. The software identified pairs of letters written by different authors with at least 75 words of shared language, counting only words present in contiguous phrases of at least eight words (Shared Wording Across People, SWAP). Independent reviewers determined whether the shared language reflected acceptable forms of common usage (e.g. describing a setting of care) or was intended to convey unique attributes of an applicant, thereby representing plagiarism. Results: We found that 5.1% of letters contained SWAP and 4.1% of letters contained plagiarism. In total, 11.8% of all applications included at least one plagiarised letter. By comparison, 2.6% of applicants’ personal statements contained plagiarism. Conclusions: The present data demonstrate a surprising prevalence of plagiarism in letters of recommendation written for residency applicants. These data call into question both the relative weight that should be accorded to letters of recommendation and, more broadly, beg further discussion of how we conceptualise professionalism in medicine.
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